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Gift-giving Missteps and How To Avoid Them

Updated on June 23, 2012

Everyone likes receiving presents, and almost everyone likes giving them just as much. But nobody wants to be like that weird aunt who always sent the same poorly-knit sweaters, or the cheapskate grandpa who re-gifted truck stop trinkets he'd collected over the years. We all want to give gifts remembered not for their awfulness, but for their awesomeness.

Below are 6 examples -- 3 of excellent gifts, and why they were so incredibly excellent; and 3 of truly horrible, thoughtless gifts, and how the giver could have sidestepped that.

Best Gifts

The best gifts show how much the giver appreciates and values the recipient. They come from a genuine desire to show the recipient that they matter.


#1: Jack's 17th birthday party.


Jack is a young man nearing adulthood. Like many teenagers his age, he seeks autonomy and independence, while simultaneously craving parental approval.

Jack has a number of friends his parents disapprove of, but Jack knows they are good people who were just not born into the sort of favorable circumstances he was. He has been trying to explain this to his parents, but feels they see him as a child. He's frustrated and angry with the situation.


For Jack's birthday, his parents wanted to show their trust and appreciation of Jack, so they decided on a two-part gift to best express this.

  • For the first part, Jack's parents threw a surprise party and invited all his friends.
  • For the second part (family celebration), Jack's parents bought him a special edition library-sized hardcover dictionary, complete with the linguistic etymology in each definition.


Jack's mom invited his friends. Not the people she wished he was friends with, or only the friends she approved of. She took the time and effort to contact them, arrange rides for the kids who didn't have transportation, and set up the surprise party with snacks and beverages for everyone. By inviting Jack's friends into their home for his special day, she signaled trust in Jack's judgement and a recognition of the people important to Jack.

The dictionary is one of those gifts that most people raise an eyebrow and look disappointed at the idea of. The strangeness of it may even seem disappointing for Jack, at first blush. However, Jack was the type of boy who spent hours in the library, and could often be found poring over the huge dictionaries to trace the meaning of some word that had caught his imagination. With the gift of an expensive, specialty-bound edition, his parents were showing appreciation, encouragement, and understanding of his interests.


This gift occasion is in the top three because the gifts expressed:

  • Trust between recipient and giver
  • Effort to express affection
  • Appreciation of recipients interests.

This gift and occasion was only possible because there is open dialogue and genuine appreciation between Jack and his parents, even when they disagree.

The Red Queen
The Red Queen | Source

#2: Couple's First Christmas


Emma and Isaac have been casual acquaintances in the same church group for about 8 months. For the past two months, since the church Halloween party, they've been dating. Now Christmas is approaching, and both of them are feeling uncertain about the gift-giving occasion. Given the length of their relationship, the gifts cannot be too serious, but they both want to show their growing affection.

Emma is a creative sort who enjoys drawing, painting, reading, and writing. She enjoys fantasy with strong female protagonists, and prefers dragons over unicorns.

Isaac is a practical, hands-on, fix-it guy. He works on cars, gardens, and builds computers. He doesn't really like to read, but he loves sci-fi t.v. and film.


  • From Isaac: Hardcover copy of The Book of Enchantments, by Patricia C. Wrede; a framed print by fantasy artist Amy Brown.
  • From Emma: A comedic t-shirt from a local small business; a white potted anthurium.


Isaac and Emma had only been dating for 2 months, and weren't really sure if it was serious enough to exchange special gifts. In fact, Isaac was only spending the holiday with Emma and her family because his parents were out of town and his sister was spending it with her church group.

When Emma opened his gift, she was amazed and overwhelmed at what it said about his feelings toward her.

The painting was by an artist she did not (then) know, but Isaac explained that the style reminded him of Emma's artwork. He purchased it specifically because of that, and because he knew Emma liked fantasy, strong female protagonists, and dragons. Finally, the subject was clothed in Emma's favorite color, Red. The book he chose was written by Emma's favorite author, contained short stories she had not yet read, and featured a short story with characters from Emma's favorite series by that author.

With this gift, Isaac showed his interest and appreciation of Emma's interests and passions. Because he does not have an inherent interest in artwork or fantasy, this gift also highlights how observant and thoughtful he is, to have picked up on her favorite interests and remembered them.

Meanwhile, Emma's gift showed similar taste and thought. The t-shirt from a local small business featured a slogan reflecting Isaac's sense of humor, while the store it was purchased at gave a nod toward Isaac's preference of supporting local businesses. Similarly, the plant was purchased from a locally-owned plant nursery. Emma had gone to great pains to find a white anthurium, because she knew Isaac preferred the white flower to the red.


The gifts given expressed:

  • Ability to accurately judge the recipient's tastes
  • Knowledge of the recipient's preferences and interests
  • Appreciation of recipient's interests.

Sometimes when giving a gift to a loved one, it's easy to fall into temptation and get them a gift that's really about you -- season concert tickets, perhaps, when your SO isn't as enthusiastic about music as you are. Or perhaps buying them a shirt in a style and color you would prefer to see them in, rather than a style and color they enjoy.

Both Isaac and Emma set their own preferences aside and fully focused on buying a gift that was all about the recipient. Emma, for instance, was not a fan of slogan-emblazoned t-shirts. She thought they looked juvenile and silly. But she also knew Isaac was a fan of slogan-emblazoned t-shirts, and that he would appreciate the shirt she chose for him. She also prefers red flowers over white, but bought the white one for Isaac even though she felt the red was prettier.

Always make sure your own preferences don't overwhelm a gift. The gift is about the recipient, not the giver.

Journals | Source

#3: Appreciation for Hard Work


Jane had been working on a research project for 18 months. Now the project was coming to a close, and it was time for Jane to leave. Her professor, Dr. Somme, was impressed with not only with Jane's intelligence and work ethic, but with her friendliness and willingness to always help. She wanted to let Jane know how much she had been appreciated, in a way that was both professional and personalized.


  • A card with a handwritten note expressing sincere gratitude, a $20 gift card for the coffee shop Jane always goes to, and three journals -- one moleskin with blank pages for either sketching or writing, and two slim paperback journals with lined pages.


It's always nice when your boss (or professor) recognizes your efforts, but there's something especially memorable about a gift of appreciation that shows your superior has not only recognized your achievements, but your personality.

With the coffee card, Dr. Somme indicated recognition of Jane's preferences and provided a means for her to treat herself for a few days. With the blank-paged journal, Dr. Somme gave a nod to Jane's sketching and artwork, while the lined notebooks recognized Jane's penchant for jotting notes and research. Each item was equally useful for work or Jane's personal interests.


The gifts given expressed:

  • The belief that the recipient deserves a special treat.
  • Awareness of the recipient's talents
  • Appreciation of work done and subtle encouragement to continue research efforts.

The biggest dangers with a gift from an educational or business superior to a student or employee comes down to two concerns:

  • It will either be so safe and impersonal that it appears to be run of the mill -- in other words, the recipient won't think they were given the gift because they were remarkable, but instead because anyone who reaches thus and such a goal receives a similar recognition.
  • It will be inappropriately personal.

Dr. Somme combated the impersonal concerns by providing Jane with the means to treat herself to her favorite coffee shop, as well as including a handwritten note of appreciation. By giving a gift related to Jane's work persona -- note-taking, research, and drinking coffee -- Dr. Somme stayed within appropriate parameters.

Worst Gifts

It's actually pretty hard to give a bad gift. It's easier to give a bland gift, actually, and bland gifts aren't so bad. Bland gifts play it safe. A bad gift is either intentionally offensive or so full of unawareness about the recipient that it appears premeditated.

Because grown women love jewelry intended for 12 year old girls.
Because grown women love jewelry intended for 12 year old girls. | Source

#1: (Excuse - It's the Thought That Counts)


Callie and J.R. have been married for many years. They have a strained relationship with J.R.'s parents, Mary and Dan, in part because Mary and Dan are regularly dismissive of and rude to both Callie and J.R. Last year, Callie and J.R. gave birth to their first child -- and the first grandchild in the family.

For the sake of the baby, they are all trying to put aside their differences, and the entire family is gathering for the holidays. In addition to Mary, Dan, J.R., Callie, and the baby, J.R.'s brother Thom will be there.

In the past, Mary and Dan's obvious preference for Thom has driven a wedge between the brothers, and it is an issue that both Thom and J.R. have spoken to Mary and Dan about. Callie and J.R. play it safe, as always. Although it is predictable, it is also the only gift everyone appreciates -- a generous apiece for Mary, Dan, and Thom.


  • For J.R., they buy a card for a gas station J.R. dislikes.
  • For Callie, they give her a cheap jewelry set designed and marketed toward preteen girls.
  • For the baby, Mary and Dan give an expensive and noisy LeapFrog toy out of her age range, as well as several outfits with design and styling that Callie and J.R. do not approve of.
  • For Thom: A personalized Dell laptop configured for gaming.


This is the sort of gift where people say, "It's the thought that counts." As though the fact a gift was given at all counteracts the selfishness it displays. So let's deconstruct exactly why this goes from bland to bad.

J.R.'s gift: Mary and Dan have known J.R. his entire life. They raised him, sheltered him, and taught him everything they know. They taught him how to drive, as well as how to buy and repair cars. Their knowledge and advice have helped shaped his preferences. All the family members are well aware and in agreement of the opinion that this particular gas station has cheap gas that causes the cars to choke and sputter. At this point in time, gasoline is also prohibitively expensive.

His parents have intentionally chosen to give J.R. a valuable gift (free gas), but have chosen to provide the gas through a station they themselves condemn for providing bad gas. The gift is a slap in the face, but at the same time is valuable enough that J.R. can't turn it down without looking ungrateful and petty.

Callie's gift: They have known his wife, Callie, for five years. They have seen the jewelry she wears, as well as the gifts of jewelry J.R. has given her. Furthermore, they have given her jewelry in the past and seen the allergic reaction -- blisters and weeping sores -- cheap metal cause on her skin. She has also had discussed her skin sensitivities with them in the past when explaining why she didn't wear earrings.

Their decision to give her a cheap jewelry set knowing she cannot wear it due to allergic reactions sends several messages. First, they are indicating they either do not care, or do not care to remember, her tastes. They are also indicating they do not care (or again, do not care to remember) the medical issues such cheap jewelry causes.

Baby's gift: Mary and Dan are aware that Callie and J.R. do not have a spacious home to store large toys in for several years, yet they opted to give an advanced toy marketed to preschoolers to a newborn infant. They are also aware that Callie and J.R. do not share their religious beliefs, but have opted to buy the infant religiously-themed onesies and clothing.

Thom: The thoughtlessness apparent in the gifts given Callie, J.R., and baby are highlighted when contrasted to the thought and care put into the personalized laptop computer given to Thom.

Bonus: J.R. and Thom had a disagreement shortly thereafter, and J.R. became so fed up with his family that he decided to take a break for a bit. Thom kept trying to call his brother, but J.R. wasn't ready to deal with the situation. After several months, J.R.'s birthday came around, and he received a card in the mail. The return address was Thom's house, where his parents were visiting for the weekend of J.R.'s birthday. The card itself contained a toothpick, a printed Happy Birthday message, and a handwritten admonition to call Thom.


If you feel compelled by circumstance or relation to give a gift to someone you dislike, there's no reason to be petty and vicious about it. Don't waste your money on a gift meant to insult. There are two perfectly reasonable solutions to the "required" gift dilemma:

  • Do not give a gift.
  • Give a bland, generically useful gift

By not giving a gift, you achieve the insult and save money all at once. By giving a bland gift, you may actually generate goodwill and improve relations. Either way is preferable to a horrific gift that will be thrown away in the end.

This is totally equivalent to an awesome date night.
This is totally equivalent to an awesome date night. | Source

#2: (Excuse -- You Just Don't Have a Sense of Humor)


In Ken was about to graduate college, and his family was taking him out to a congratulations dinner. The week before the dinner, his older sister, Michelle, called several times to ask Ken some very specific questions, like if he was dating anyone, if he wanted to see any of the movies currently in the theater, and what his favorite restaurant was. When Ken asked why she was asking so many questions, she would become evasive and teasing.

A few nights before the family dinner, Michelle's husband, Ben, called Ken to ask some more questions about movie and dining preferences. Ken again asked what this was all about, though by now he suspected they were planning a gift. Ben admitted that he and Barbie had were thinking about giving him a "date" as a graduation gift -- an all expenses paid movie and dinner night.


  • A DVD of the previous year's Oscar Winner for "Best Picture."


This is the sort of situation where people respond, "Ken has no right to expect a gift at all. He should be grateful for the movie he did get. It's a great movie."

And they're right -- but at the same time, it's pretty unkind and petty to build up expectations for one gift and spring another one instead, especially when Gift A is objectively better than Gift B. An all-expenses paid evening out is preferable to a $15 DVD, it's as simple as that.

If someone strongly hints they're going to give you one thing -- a spa weekend, a new car, that KitchenAid stand mixer you've been wanting -- and instead gives you an objectively crappier gift -- a spa foot bath, a decorative model car, a hand-held electric mixer -- then yes. You do have a valid reason to be upset. Even if the objectively crappier gift would have been fine otherwise -- it's the preface that makes it so awful.

It's the decision of the giver to turn a special occasion in their personal practical joke, where the punchline is the recipient's disappointment. That's what turns an "okay" gift into a "bad" gift.


If you feel compelled to make a gift into a joke, go the opposite direction. Set them up for a lame gift and give them something awesome. See, it's still a practical joke that relies on the reversal of expectations, but the punchline is the recipients speechless joy instead disappointment and anger.

That's . . . appropriate . . .
That's . . . appropriate . . .

#3: The Inappropriate Gift


Kyle had been working at Generics Inc. for three years, and had just been promoted to manager in a new division. Hope had worked with his present location for the past year an a half, as his manager. At his going away party, she wanted to give him a gift that let him know how much she admired him as a person and an employee. She was very familiar with Kyle's work ethic, and on a personal level she knew Kyle frequently swam at the company gym. She also knew Kyle was recently engaged, and thought to inject a little humor and fun into his farewell party.


  • A speedo and chocolate body paint.


Do I really need to explain? This is at best, really inappropriate and, at worst, sexual harassment. There's not many situations where a boss can innocently give their employees suggestive swimwear and sexualized body gifts. Maybe if the employee is a lifeguard or a porn star. Generally speaking, though, keep business gifts on a G or PG level. When in doubt, ask yourself how you would explain this gift to a 12 year old relative.


If you feel compelled to give a gift to someone you dislike, there's no reason to be petty and vicious about it. There's no reason to waste your money on a gift meant to insult. There are two perfectly reasonable solutions to the "required" gift dilemma:

  • Do not give a gift.
  • Give a bland, generically useful gift

By not giving a gift, you send the message of dislike without wasting your money or requiring the ungrateful recipient to express humiliating and false thanks. By giving a bland gift, you may actually generate goodwill and improve relations.

In Summation

The old truism says, "It's the thought that counts," and that is true. When you receive a gift that has clearly had no thought whatsoever put into it, that sends just as strong a message as well-thought out gifts. People usually interpret the saying to mean, "Hey, at least they remembered to get you a gift."

Think about it, though. Would you rather have a thoughtless gift ranging from useless to massively inappropriate to medically dangerous, or no gift at all? And as a gift giver, would you rather give a gift that is appreciated, or one that is thrown away?

Basically, if you can't think of something creative and personalized, go with stereotypical. Stereotypical gifts became stereotypes for a reason -- because they're classic and awesome. If you can't figure out the specific type of movie, music, book, or flower someone likes, get them a gift card.

Seriously, they're awesome.
Seriously, they're awesome. | Source


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